The 2019 French Open has been great for tennis fans as they got to see Roger Federer return from his several years’ hiatus, but not to put a crowning achievement on things, he will also face off with King of Clay Rafael Nadal. The only problem for the swiss maestro is that he’s not had the best luck going against Rafa, but that’s not getting into his head.
The two tennis champs have something they’re working for. Nadal wants to get his dozen French Open titles under his belt so expect very intense play from both. The big winners with this match are the fans.
Playing two straight five-set matches ahead of his French Open quarterfinal against Rafael Nadal was certainly not the ideal preparation for Kei Nishikori.
Already exhausted before setting a foot on Court Philippe Chatrier on Tuesday, the Japanese player was handed a ruthless beating by the 11-time Roland Garros champion.
“I mean, that’s for sure I played too much hours on the court this week, last week. I played too much,” Nishikori said after his 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 loss.
In his four previous matches with Nadal on the slow surface, the seventh-seeded Nishikori had managed to win just one set. With the odds stacked against him, fatigue surely did not help his bid to reach the semifinals in Paris for the first time.
Before taking on the 17-time Grand Slam champion, Nishikori had played five-set matches against both Laslo Djere and Benoit Paire. His fourth-round victory over the Frenchman extended over two days, meaning he had a day less than Nadal to recover and get ready for their meeting.
“He was a little bit more tired than usual, no doubt about it,” Nadal said.
Nishikori is the best deciding-set player since the beginning of the Open era in 1968. Against Paire, he won his eighth consecutive five-setter. Overall, he has a 23-6 record in five-set matches. This speaks volumes about his fighting spirit, but he now wants to learn to finish off matches quicker.
“I think I’ve got to keep trying, to work, to finish in straight sets,” he said. “But that means I’m not, maybe, good enough, tennis-wise, and also mental. I think that’s going to be the next step, because I’m always stuck in the quarterfinals in Grand Slams, and I think next goal is to be in semifinal or final.”
Nishikori was runner-up at the 2014 U.S. Open and reached the semifinals twice at Flushing Meadows, but he never progressed beyond the last eight at the three other majors.
Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal
The way Roger Federer was talking ahead of his battle against Rafael Nadal at the French Open, you would think something especially crazy has to happen for Spain’s “King of Clay” to lose their semifinal.
“Every match needs to be played before it’s decided, and that’s exactly what everybody believes by facing Rafa,” Federer, the 20-time grand slam winner, told reporters. “They know it’s going to be tough but you just never know.
“He might have a problem. He might be sick. You might be playing great for some reason and he is struggling. Maybe there’s incredible wind, rain, 10 rain delays.
“You just don’t know.”
What we do know is that Federer has never beaten Nadal — who owns a record 11 French Open titles and 17 majors — in their five Roland Garros contests. Overall on clay, he trails his newly turned 33-year-old pal 13-2. Nadal holds a 23-15 advantage in the on-court rivalry that has transcended tennis.
But something atypical might not necessarily have to happen Friday for Federer to beat the Spanish left-hander 10 years after he claimed his lone Roland Garros title.
It would unquestionably be one of the biggest wins of his career, especially as he is 37.
Federer, of course, is back in Paris for the first time since 2015, preferring to miss the clay-court major to preserve his body and focus on Wimbledon, where he has won a record eight titles.
But if Federer creates break points and increases his conversion rate, he could very well stun the lefty and progress to a first French Open final since a tight-four set reverse to Nadal in 2011.
Despite the unblemished record in Paris against Federer, only one of Nadal’s victories has been a blowout.
It was, indeed, a huge blowout in 2008, when Federer grabbed a meager four games in a 6-1 6-3 6-0 drubbing that lasted an hour and 48 minutes — exactly three hours fewer than their seismic Wimbledon clash a month later, which was also won by Nadal and is often revered as one of tennis’ greatest ever matches.
Break points key
But in their four other matches in Paris, Federer created more total break points with 54 yet only converted 15 times or 28%. Nadal by contrast earned 50 break points but converted 24 times or 48%.
Even though Federer went an eye-catching 2-for-18 against fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals Tuesday, he lifted his level in the two tiebreaks that heavily influenced the outcome.
Federer also enters the match against Nadal holding an unprecedented five-match winning streak in their head-to-heads. There are additionally no fresh scars from any clay-court losses since their last duel on the surface came in Rome in 2013.
“What I will do is try to do my best so that the victories I have won on this surface against him count for something,” said Nadal. “And he will do his utmost to make sure that his latest victories against me have their weight. And so we’ll see.”
Two days between the quarterfinal and semifinal — their half of the draw began first, a bonus with the inclement weather that has wreaked havoc with the other half — gives Federer not only time to recover from the three-and-a-half hour outing against Wawrinka but more time to practice against a left-hander.
Nadal will be the first left-hander he has confronted this tournament and first since Fernando Verdasco in February in Dubai.
“For me it’s a complete switch around,” said Federer. “Just the way the ball goes out of your strings with different spins, it’s just different.
“So you have to get used to that quickly. Don’t have much time to waste.”
Federer accumulated an elevated 60 points at the net against Wawrinka and the tactic mostly paid off. He got joy against Wawrinka serving and volleying on second serves, most notably in the pivotal third set.
He will probably continue to move forward and offer up a drop shot or two instead of remaining on the baseline and rallying with Nadal, who like Federer has dropped a solitary set so far during the fortnight. Nadal, however, is a superior defender than Wawrinka.
“The level of tennis that you need to play always is the highest against Federer,” said Nadal. “And I am playing well, but I need to play very well against him. I hope to be ready to make that happen.”
When Wawrinka was asked for a prediction, he played it safe: “I cannot see the future.”
He is friends with Federer and has a healthy dose of respect for Nadal, too, not to mention knowing the latter’s record at Roland Garros. Nadal crushed him in the 2017 final.
But he said he will be watching on Friday, like hundreds of thousands, if not more, around the world.
Amanda Anisimova Heads Into Semifinals
Amanda Anisimova smacked one last backhand winner to complete her upset of defending champion Simona Halep in the French Open quarterfinals, flung her racket and covered her mouth with both hands.
Eyes wide, Anisimova then spread her arms with palms up and said, “What?!”
In a tournament filled with surprises, Anisimova provided the latest Thursday. Just 17 and ranked merely 51st, yet possessing the mindset and mien of someone much more experienced and accomplished, the American withstood a late charge by Halep and won 6-2, 6-4 to reach her first Grand Slam semifinal.
“I don’t think it will sink in, at least not for today. Yeah, I mean, it’s crazy,” said Anisimova, who was born in New Jersey to Russian parents and moved to Florida when she was 3. “I really can’t believe the result today. And getting the opportunity to play against Simona, that’s amazing. But how it ended is even crazier to me.”
That’s a fair assessment of the entire tournament. Serena Williams, No. 1 Naomi Osaka and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova lost in the third round; Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki were gone in the first.
The highest-seeded player in the semifinals is No. 8 Ash Barty, the Australian who will face Anisimova. Barty advanced by beating No. 14 Madison Keys of the United States 6-3, 7-5.
“I felt,” Barty said, “like I was in control.”
The other semifinal is No. 26 Johanna Konta of Britain against unseeded 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.
Because rain washed out all play Wednesday, the women’s semifinals — normally Thursday, one after another in the main stadium — will be played simultaneously on the second- and third-largest courts Friday morning. The biggest arena will host the men’s semifinals: Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic vs. Dominic Thiem. It’s the first time the top four men’s seeds are the last four standing at a major tournament since the 2013 Australian Open.
Djokovic stretched his Grand Slam winning streak to 26 matches as he pursues a fourth consecutive major trophy, beating Alexander Zverev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. Thiem eliminated No. 10 seed Karen Khachanov 6-2, 6-4, 6-2.
“Controlling the points was the key, I think,” said 2018 French Open runner-up Thiem, who made only 12 unforced errors, 25 fewer than Khachanov. “I didn’t miss a lot today.”
Not only has none of the remaining women won a Grand Slam trophy, none has participated in a major final.
“Well,” said Halep, who was seeded third, “nothing surprises me anymore in tennis.”
Still, Anisimova’s rapid rise is noteworthy.
Already the first tennis player born in the 2000s to get to a Slam quarterfinal, she’s now the youngest U.S. woman into the semis at Roland Garros since Jennifer Capriati was 14 in 1990.
Anisimova or Vondrousova could each become the first teenager since Iva Majoli in 1997 to win the French Open, where the slow clay courts require patience from shot to shot, the movement and endurance to get to ball after ball, the smarts to construct points.
Anisimova certainly checked all those boxes Thursday. Facing a former No. 1 and major champ, in the tournament’s largest arena, the teenager was poised as can be.
“She was pretty calm,” said Halep, who acknowledged feeling the stress of trying to win a second consecutive title in Paris. “She showed that she’s able to do good things and big things.”
Yet to drop a set through five matches, Anisimova plays with a confident, take-it-to-the-opponent style. She doesn’t rely on power so much as precision, depositing what she’s called “effortless shots” near lines and often wrong-footing Halep.
And to think: It was in 2016 that Anisimova was the junior runner-up at Roland Garros at 14.
“I actually kind of miss juniors, but, I mean, this is a new phase,” she said, shrugging. “Obviously I respect (Halep) a lot. But I know I’m capable of doing a lot, and I know I can play very well. I mean, I never doubt my abilities. Today that showed.”
Did it ever.
“For a 17-year-old to play that well,” said Chris Evert, who won seven of her 18 major trophies in Paris, “is pretty awesome.”
Most impressive, perhaps, was this: Halep had won 16 return games in a row coming in, but Anisimova saved 6 of 7 break points.
A seven-game run that began at 2-2 in the early going put Anisimova up a set and 3-0 in the second. But from 4-1, Halep made one last push, getting to 4-all.
“Nerves,” Anisimova said, “were kicking in a bit.”
In the next game, she pushed a backhand long and chewed on a thumbnail. That gave Halep a break chance, one point from serving to force a third set.
But it was Anisimova who steeled herself, Halep who stumbled. A forehand into the net, a return that sailed wide and another miscue by Halep let Anisimova hold, before she broke to end it.
“I’m really happy with my performance,” Anisimova said, “because this is one of the best matches I’ve ever played.”
There’s not a long list for comparison, frankly.
After all, this was just the 43rd tour-level match of Anisimova’s nascent career, only her fourth major tournament. It was amusing to hear her mention how many coaches she’s had “throughout my lifetime.”
Barty, who is 23, missed about two years on tour when she switched sports and played cricket. She’s progressing quickly now, though: Her first major quarterfinal came in January at the Australian Open, and now she’s gone a step further.
Against Keys, the 2017 U.S. Open runner-up, Barty used her backhand slice to great effect, helping create errors on the other side of the net.
Barty was asked whether she was shocked that her game, seemingly built for hard courts, is suddenly so good on clay.
“Yes,” she replied, “very much so. I’ve been learning every single day.”